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As political ads abound, a push to uncloak who is behind them

Political ads paid for by nondescript organizations such as Minnesota Forward have caused some to investigate who is donating to these nonprofits – and the IRS could be helping out.

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So what is the average, overloaded media consumer to do when he or she sees some snappy name flash by at the end of an ad for an issue or candidate? Hit the Internet, for starters. Pull up the group’s website and assess its board members and mission statement for bias or hidden agendas. There are loads of websites with additional tools: citizen sleuths can head to the Sunlight Foundation, a group which seeks to make government transparent and accountable. Its "Follow the Unlimited Money" tracking tool can help expose contradictions between a corporation's public profile and its political donations, says Liz Bartolomeo, its communications manager.

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This is the sort of thing that happened with Minnesota Forward, a group running ads in support of Minnesota gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer (R). In August, users of online social media sites revealed that Target had contributed $150,000 to the group. Because Mr. Emmer opposes gay marriage, gay rights groups organized a boycott against the Minnesota-based retail giant, saying its support for Emmer and his antigay stances was at odds with the image Target tries to project.

Journalists also play a key role in digging out cozy relationships between special interests and nonprofit groups, says Mr. Perlmutter. They often have access to key figures whom they can question and in turn push the information back through their outlets.

More help with transparency may be on the way from the Internal Revenue Service, says tax specialist Steven Hoffman, formerly with the IRS. In the interest of spurring “better governance” in the tax-exempt sector, he says, the agency has expanded the tax forms, specifically Form 990, in hopes of achieving “better tax compliance.” This was done, he says, in response to congressional focus on nonprofits and notable abuses in the nonprofit world.

He suggests that anyone wishing to collect more data on certain tax-exempt groups head to GuideStar.org.

While he notes many groups have filed for extensions of their 2009 returns due to the new form requirements, ultimately the additional information – not to mention pressure on the groups – may be useful.

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